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Behind the Headlines: Residents of Israeli Arab Village Watching Knesset Debate with Pride

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As the muezzin called worshippers for noon prayers, the streets of this large Arab village on the foothills of the Judean Mountains were virtually empty Tuesday.

The children were still in school, and most men were at work in nearby Jewish towns.

But small groups of unemployed men could be found at the local coffeehouses, playing backgammon and watching a live television broadcast of the Knesset debate on the Palestinian self-rule agreement signed last week in Washington.

For the residents of this village, it was a moment of historic significance.

For the first time since Israel’s establishment, Arab Knesset members were likely to cast the deciding votes on an issue that will determine the future of the Jewish state.

With the six Knesset members of the fervently Orthodox Shas party still undecided on whether to vote in favor of the Israeli-Palestinian accord, it appeared the government would have to rely on support from the three representatives of the Hadash Communist party and two members of the Arab Democratic Party.

Neither party is a member of the governing coalition, but both have pledged their support of the Labor government since it took power last year.

All but one member of those two parties are Israeli Arabs. In addition, two members of the Labor Party’s Knesset faction are Arabs, as is one member of the Meretz bloc’s delegation.

The vote was certain to be controversial, if only for the growing voices on the political right, which have questioned the legitimacy of the Arab vote in determining the fate of the Jewish state.

Some Knesset members, such as Yehoshua Matza of Likud, publicly questioned the validity of a majority reached by rallying the support of the Arab Knesset members.

But residents of this Israeli Arab village have rejected the criticism as nonsense.

“The Likud fears that it is losing the battle,” said Aed al-Akili, 32. “This is why they discredit our Knesset members.

“But there is no difference between Darawshe and David Levy. They are all representatives of the people,” he said, referring to the former Likud foreign minister and to Knesset member Abdel Wahab Darawshe, head of the Arab Democratic Party.

NO LONGER ‘JUST BYSTANDERS’

Darawshe spoke out Tuesday against the right’s attempt to “disseminate fear within the public.”

Speaking in a radio interview, the Arab Knesset member said he was proud to support an agreement that would bring peace to the area, “so that within a year we can have 22 Arab ambassadors in Israel, and 22 Israeli ambassadors throughout the Arab world.”

Darawshe’s jubilant mood was also reflected in the Arab villages within Israel proper.

Here in Kafr Kasim, one could almost hear a sigh of relief competing with the sound of the muezzin. For the first time in years, local residents felt no conflict between their Israeli citizenship and their Palestinian identity.

“For years we were just bystanders,” said Jihad Kassem, 48, a truck driver. “The only time we could influence Israeli polities was on Election Day.

“Now, for the first time our representatives determine the course of events, along with the others,” he said.

Kafr Kasim, which lies northeast of Petach Tikvah, is one of the largest Arab villages in central Israel, with a population of nearly 12,000.

In 1956, 49 of its residents were shot to death in a tragic incident.

The villagers were shot by Israeli border policemen as they were returning from the fields, not knowing that a general curfew was in effect as a result of the Sinai Campaign, which began Oct. 29, 1956.

For years, the tragedy has cast a heavy shadow on the relations between the residents of Israel proper, and the Jewish state.

A large monument, carrying the names of the 49 victims of the attack, welcomes visitors at the entrance to the village.

But time has healed many wounds, and in recent years the village has become a symbol of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel, particularly as a result of the fact that most of the village’s residents earn their livelihood in nearby Jewish towns.

And never have they been prouder to be Arab Israelis than in the past two weeks.

For years, the village’s mayor, Ibrahim Sarsur, has refrained from raising the Israeli national flag on top of the municipality building, concerned that it might cause negative, nationalist reactions.

Now, for the first time, he said, they can raise the flag wholeheartedly.

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